Lionel Messi scored three goals in a dazzling second-half display in his return from a back injury, and Argentina beat Panama 5-0 on Friday night to clinch a spot in the knockout round of the Copa America Centenario.
Messi replaced Augusto Fernandez in the 61st minute, drawing a big ovation from a sea of No. 10 Argentina jersey wearing fans and the familiar colors of Barcelona, his club team.
A few minutes later, the five-time FIFA Player of the Year got right back to work.
First, Roderick Miller’s clearing attempt for Panama went off Gonzalo Higuain’s hands as he went to protect his face and right to Messi, who took a couple dribbles and then beat Jaime Penedo on the ground to the goaltender’s right side. T
hen Messi sent a curling free kick into the top left corner of the goal in the 78th minute, making it 3-0 and drawing gasps from the crowd at the home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears.
A left-footed chip past Penedo on the goaltender’s right side finished off Messi’s fourth international hat trick, joining friendlies against Switzerland and Brazil in 2012, and Guatemala in 2013.
It also ran Messi’s total to 53 international goals, just three away from Gabriel Batistuta’s Argentina record. It was quite a return for Messi after he departed in the second half of a 1-0 victory against Honduras on May 27 with a back and rib injury.
He also missed Argentina’s 2-1 victory over Chile in the Copa opener, but manager Gerardo Martino said Thursday he was training with the team and was ready to go against Panama.
Nicolas Otamendi also scored on a header off a curving free kick by Angel Di Maria in the seventh minute, and Sergio Aguero made it 5-0 in the 90th minute.
A rare U.S. appearance for Messi attracted a crowd of 53,885, easily cruising past the attendance of 39,642 for the United States’ 4-0 victory against Costa Rica on Tuesday night.
The fans chanted “Messi! Messi!” at a couple of points in the first half and cheered loudly whenever he was shown on the videoboard.
In between a steady stream of first-half whistles and yellow cards, top-ranked Argentina showed off some of the fancy passing that makes it one of the favorites to take home South America’s championship.
Panama competed hard, but played with 10 men after Anibal Godoy received his second yellow in the 31st minute.